Robert Jackson, Sovereignty

Robert Jackson, Sovereignty

Good clean overview of concept and the history of sovereignty.

“Today sovereignty is a global system of authority. It extends across all the religions, civilizations, languages, cultures, ethnic and racial groupings, and other communities and collectivities into which humanity is divided. The sovereign states system is the only global system of authority that has ever existed. It was once possible for many people, indeed millions, to live outside the jurisdiction of sovereign states. That is no longer possible. There is no inhabited territory anywhere on the planet that is outside…The weight of this now universal fact of human affairs is not always fully appreciated.” p.x

“Sovereignty is not originally or primarily an abstract idea fashioned by philosophers and other theoreticians and then applied in practice. It is an expedient idea worked out by kings and other rulers and their representatives and agents in response to the novel circumstances of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The political arrangements and legal practices of sovereignty came first, the academic theories later.” p. xi

“Sovereignty in the twentieth and twentie=first centuries is still recognizably the same basic idea that it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” p. 2

“[various premodern non-Western examples] operated with notions of suzerainty and not sovereignty. They strove to hold sway over diverse territories and populations, usually with the aim of extracting tribute. Their Weltanschauungen, and also that of Rome, was hierarchical and not horizontal, and they were on top. Precolonial populations of North and South America, hinterlands of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands knew little or nothing of sovereignty as understood in this study. They were subjected to it by European conquerors and colonists from whom they also got the idea to demand it for themselves: colonialism provoking anti-colonialism based on the doctrine of self-determination.” p. 7

“A sovereign state can be defined as an authority that is supreme in relation to all other authorities in the same territorial jurisdiction, and that is independent of all foreign authorities.” p. 10

“Sovereignty is a form of authority, and not a kind of power (Oakeshott 1975), but sovereignty can easily be construed and interpreted as irresistable or compelling power…Power and authority are closely related ideas, but their relation is a contingent or conditional relation, with power under the hood or bonnet of the car and authority in the driver’s seat. Authority commands, power executes.” p. 14

“A government’s capability and capacity cannot confer authority upon it.” p. 15 e.g., sovereignty exists whether or not the sovereign executes the authority it confers well or fully–“a goverment may be sovereign but may not be very powerful.” p. 16

“Sovereignty presupposes that there are no limits on the authorized exercise of state power at any point within a sovereign’s jurisdiction. If there were limits, the source of those limits would be the sovereign. Sovereigns have no superior. They answer to nobody else.”p. 17

“Sovereignty offers no way around the problem of power; nor does any other arrangement of authority. All that one can hope for is that those who have access to the state apparatus of power wield it responsibly and prudently. No constitution can guarantee they will. We have arrived at the inherent and insurmountable problem of power in human affairs, to which there is no fully satisfactory solution…”p. 19

“Sovereignty can also be employed to do different–sometimes very different–political things. English (later British) rulers used sovereignty to separate themselves from Latin Christendom. Then they used it to build an empire that eventually encircled the globe. Then they used it to decolonize their empire and thereby created a multitude of new, locally sovereign states in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Then they turned around and used their sovereignty to become part of the European Union and to participate in its common affairs.” p. 22

Jackson continues to hammer on the point that sovereignty at its origins is a simultaneously political and legal doctrine, and that seems somewhat crucial to why it is now so incapable of address both some legal/rules-driven issues (rights, because rights-enforcement is a matter of power, not authority, but also because rights discourse comes with an embedded sense that this is the one thing over which the sovereign does not have authority even as the legal framing insists that the sovereign has all authority) and also why sovereignty cannot be used to imagine or understand conditions where it simply isn’t really what’s going on–Somalia and Syria are right now not really sovereignties but sovereign states have to act as if they are–as if they are sovereignties which for some reason happen to have trouble wielding power.

“That argument in favour of freedom of rulers to set their own political course and determine the means necessary to reach their goal was, to most Christian authorities at the time, a sanction of blasphemous and criminal conduct…But Machiavelli believed that in a world of flawed people one could not count on their best behaviour. Rulers were no less subject to human imperfection than other people. Yet their responsibility to give protection, to provide stability and order, was greater, indeed far greater than that of other people. That they ought to trust each other blindly or even implicitly would be a policy that could only end in disaster when that trust was betrayed, as must be expected sooner or later.” p. 43

“Thus, in the relations of sovereign states to each other, Westphalia overthrew the practices of imperialism…The story outside of Europe followed a different and older course.In the reltions of European states to political authorities in the rest of the world Westphalia initially reiterated and reinforced a doctrine of the superiority of Christian cum European civilization, the moral inequality of peoples, the right of intervention, the right of conquest, and ultimately the right of colonization. The old medieval boundary between Christendom and the non-Christian world…was redefined yet again, now as a line between the civilized European cum Western world and the not yet fully or properly civilized rest of the world. Only much later, in the mid-twentieth century, did Westphalia becaome a universal idea of a global society of sovereign states…”p. 67

“European imperialists understandably preferred a legal title to territory, rather than the uncertainty of holding it by force in competition with each other. They consequently were inclined to recognize each other’ mpires, according to the principle of reciprocity, while not recognizing most non-European political authorities. They arrived at the latter position after a period of uncertainty when their power was insufficient to impose their political will on resisting indigenous governments outside of Europe.” p. 73

Sovereignty in this sense seems rather like the other great political-legal invention, the corporation: a structure that prohibits short-term uncertainty or improvisation, that makes certain relations non-contingent, that creates a constrained landscape for power or agency. Gives me some oblique ideas about what it might mean to create even more long-term, non-contingent arrangements of power/authority?

“How can the people be answerable and accountable if they are creatures and instruments of political elites? How are political elites kept in harness as servants of the people if the latter cannot act on their own, and if opinions can be put in their mouth by those same elites? This is the problem of populism. It is also the problem of totalitarian democracy…Similar questions were raised in the late eighteenth century by the American Federalists, who placed their political faith in civil liberties and constitutional constraints. Those answers proved to be only partly satisfactory. There are no entirely satisfactory answers of which I am aware…Sovereign authority and power has to be in somebody’s hands. It cannot be in the hands of everybody.” p. 82

“These European overseas territories were from teh beginning divorced from any idea of popular sovereignty, and that divorce had a long-term consequence. That was the eventual independence of territories which had been expediently acquired to serve imperial interests, and whose resident indigenous populations had been mobilized for those purposes. Those populations were rarely, if ever, conceived as a people or nation, either actual or potential, that would qualify for self-determination some day.” p. 106

“State sovereignty will come to an end when people are no longer prepared to underwrite the doctrine that every political community must possess a government that is both superior to all other authorities in the country, and independent of all foreign governments. At some time in the future, probably later rather than sooner, state sovereignty will be abandoned and replaced by a different arrangement of political and legal authority on the planet…there is no end in sight early in the twenty-first century.” p. 113

“There is a belief that sovereign states are an enemy of human rights, and that the construction of a world community which reises above the sovereign states system is necessary to emancipate humankind. An examination of historical and legal evidence suggests, to the contrary, that human rights protection depends heavily upon the capability of sovereign states and the respnsibility of their governments. Human rights or natural rights, to use the older term, were conceived by people who understood the state as an organization for safeguarding civil society…Where human rights are protected the people involved are more likely to be living inside sovereign states that are worthy of the name.”p. 114

This is incredibly relevant to the current work I’m doing. I know that I disagree on some level with what Jackson is arguing, but I can see that my own argument is going to need to be much, much smarter to be able to keep pace with the clear, clean way he sets out to make this point.

“An individual may be said to have a human right to protection, but that will not be of much practical value without a protector. If human rights were generally respected, such organized means would be unnecessary. Regrettably that has not been the case in the past, nor is it the case today…Merely by acknowledging that we ought to respect such rights, as a moral duty, is not sufficient to generate respect.”p . 119

“A fundamental and recurrent paradox of sovereign states is that they contain within themselves the potential for bringing about both human flourishing and human suffering. The sovereign state is a human organization, and as such it cannot be expected to escape from human frailties and failings.” p. 121

I think this might one prong of a possible critical response to Jackson’s account: the sovereign state is also a thing–a machine, a structure, an apparatus, a blind trust invented to reduce uncertainty and contingency in political and military relations. So like many institutions, it also acts in ways that are not “simply” human nor reducible to the kinds of moral flaws (and virtues) that humans possess in their day-to-day social relations.

“Even granting the regrettable truth of the persistent if not permanent humanitarian problem posed by the temptation, corruption and abuse of state power, there is no proven alternative to state soveriegnty as a political and legal arrangement for pvoding the best assurance of human safety, freedom and dignity–at least there is none of which I am aware. Human beings have flourished to the greatest extent yet known to history when they live under the authority of reliable and responsible sovereign states.” p. 122